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Why we should read... 'XXth Century Armenian Literature: issues and authors' by Azat Yeghiazarian 322pp, Yerevan, Armenia, 2002 Armenian News Network / Groong April 19, 2004 By Eddie Arnavoudian Azad Yeghiazarian is a relatively little known name in Armenian literary circles. Yet he is an impressive critic, judging from the essays gathered in his "20th Century Armenian Literature: issues and authors". Published in 2002 this is cheering work by someone who has evidently resisted the ephemeral fads and fashions of post-modern and often meaningless aesthetic theories. Yeghiazarian's essays are examples of fine balance and considered discussion. In remarks on Soviet era Armenian literature for example he is critical but not driven by the ridiculous urge to dismiss all achievement of the era just to satisfy the prejudices of the day. His overall approach is always creative, the evaluations original, uncommon and well argued with some illuminating comparison with foreign contemporaries. Among many interesting essays one group focuses on the unity and integrity in Armenian literature whether produced in Armenia or in the Diaspora. The differences are naturally acknowledged, but beyond these there is a common ground in the national Armenian experience of the Genocide and turbulent years that followed 1915. At least until World War II, even as it reflected lives lived in different circumstances and different countries (France, USA, Middle East, Armenia) the response to or the impact of these events formed a central reference point for many Armenian writers. It was not that they necessarily or directly reflected the experience of the 1915-21 years. But their work describes and considers Armenian reaction to this whether in the numerous stations of the Diaspora or in what became Soviet Armenia. In Shahnour and Charents it is a ruthless criticism of the past. In the case of Mahari, Totovents, Vahe Hayg and Hamasdegh it is a longing for a lost world and an attempt to recreate this in their fiction. In Charents and Mahari, in Bakoontz and Nshan Beshigtashlian there is also a satirical assault on the Armenian political leadership of the time and that which followed. In this vein the works of French-based Diaspora novelist Shahan Shahnour and Yeghishe Charents are compared, and shown to share a disillusionment with and a revolt against old romantic notions of nationalism. Their work Yeghiazarian argues is a criticism, direct or indirect, of a past nationalism that proved powerless to prevent the calamity of 1915. Yeghiazarian's tone suggests sympathy with this view but he does not elaborate. He notes however that this radical revolt was short lived and the old 'romantic' views rapidly re-emerged. Again he does not discuss the causes of this turnaround, a discussion that could yield significant insights. Keeping company with Charents, a delightful discussion on 'The World of Books' draws attention to the international literary grounding for his work, replete with allusions and references drawn from across the globe, from Persia, India, China, feudal France and modern Germany. Charents recasts myths and merges fables from different epochs and cultures to tell of his own troubled times. Yeghiazarian, in this connection, remarks on a frequent meditation of the world of the book - of the literary heritage of mankind - in much of modern urban poetry. The world of the book, a whole universe of cultural references supplies a mine of metaphor, image and definition for the urban artist in the same way as nature does for the romantic or realist writer. This is a suggestive point, albeit a one-sided one, that fails to take account of the fact that the actual realities of urban life have themselves often been adequate references for the urban poet. Yeghiazarian opens up an interesting and much needed discussion on the character and nature of Armenian nationalist/patriotic poetry. He traces an evolution from the declamatory and rhetorical celebrations of past grandeur, designed to inspire pride (some of Bedros Tourian, Mkrtich Beshigtashilain) to the more realistic depiction of social life, custom and tradition that one finds in Toumanian and then to Vahan Derian's melancholic sympathy for a downtrodden but still enduring Armenian nation that is presented in a spiritual rather than physical or social dimension. Beyond Derian one finds Charents's polemic against poetic declamation and against a past that is considered as a failed enterprise and devoid of any sustenance for the future. These poetic transitions clearly reflect, and are reflections upon the actual social, political and national experience and development of the Armenian people tracing the road from the hope that accompanied the 19th and early 20th century national revivals, the defeat and despair of the genocide and war years and the a new recovery. Yeghiazarian does not elaborate the point but he does raise a related issue, arguing that from its inception in the 5th century, Armenian literature was driven on by an overwhelmingly purposive and social impulse. It is a point well made. A broad national and social impulse is almost unavoidable in the work of an intelligentsia determined to create art in a language and within the experience of a nation confronted with huge social, political and cultural odds, fragile, unstable and stalked by foreign powers bent on its destruction or assimilation. In this connection, an essay that argues the prominence of national/patriotic themes during the worst epochs of Soviet Armenian history is thin argument and flawed. Yeghiazarian implies that writers such as Shiraz, Kapoutikian, Temirjian, Zorian and others were able to consider Armenian themes even at the height of the Stalinist repression. But he fails to mention that 'patriotic' themes were very much controlled and became permissible and widespread only during World War II as a concession by Stalin to boost his war effort among non-Russian people. The treatment of patriotic or national issues, for example in Nairi Zarian's 'Ara the Beautiful' was not a natural development over the entire Stalin - or indeed post-Stalin - era. One only need to look back to the fate of Charents, Bakoontz and countless others and forward to the malicious persecution of Barouyr Sevak. Furthermore, despite noting it, Yeghiazarian does not attribute adequate importance to the severe consequences on the prohibition, until the 1960s, of open discussion of the genocide. This was to lead, as Mushegh Kalshoyan has perceptively noted, to a great deal of distortion and corruption in Armenian national thought and consciousness in art and society at large. Crucially, Yeghiazarian fails to make a persuasive case for the artistic merits of 'national orientated' art in the worst Stalin years. Beyond national concerns, a comparative study of Armenian poet Hovannes Toumanian shows him to be a visionary of the same order as the European Utopian socialists. Yeghiazarian draws out some fascinating parallels and differences between them on issues such as the role money, private property, the role of work and labour and question of human happiness, vice and virtue. In Toumanian there is a stress on the spiritual, on human emotion and sensibility that is absent in the rather dogmatic and mechanical Utopians. Additionally Toumanian's thought with its emphasis on voluntary effort and voluntary collaboration suggests a democratic sensibility again absent in the more authoritarian utopians. The latter's preoccupation with the narrowly material led to an overlooking of the spiritual and democratic social relations that are indispensable foundations for a valid Utopian vision. In other essays on Avetis Aharonian, Aksel Bakoontz, Avetik Issahakian, Nairi Zarian and Levon Shant, Yeghiazarian always surprises and refreshes. But he sometimes disappoints too as for example when he totally ignores such a dominant figure as Barouyr Sevak, while making much of the lesser poet Silva Kapoutikian. On another level many of the essays lack adequate citations and elaboration that would lend them depth and substance. Perhaps Yeghiazarian will rework and expand some of these for they contain elements immensely valuable for our understanding of 20th century Armenian literature. -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.